Safety & Security

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Cities Cut Kids’ Risk-Taking, Starting at Playground Level

7 Oct, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

The tool of choice in leveling the playing field is not the backhoe or the earthmover. It’s the threat of a lawsuit. And sometimes, it’s obvious the legal system isn’t just pushing the envelope; it’s licking the stamp. Even when the playing field is a playground. Yes -- the same kind of playground sports facilities are installing to keep younger kids busy while their siblings are playing soccer, baseball or lacrosse.

These days, playground equipment -- as well as the standard games kids play there -- are being looked at through new eyes -- that of the legal system.

Take tetherball. In 2011, the New York Department of Health included tetherball on a list of games that pose a "significant risk of injury."

Of course, it wasn’t just tetherball that took a hit; other pastimes the health department tried to strike down were red rover, kickball, freeze tag, and capture the flag. Oh, and whiffle ball.

Freeze tag? Whiffle ball? And apparently, dodgeball was bad too because it was making kids feel they were being targeted (right – the goal of dodgeball).

According to Huffington Post, when a Cabell County, West Virginia, child broke his arm jumping off a schoolyard swing set, his parents filed a lawsuit, prompting a plan to remove all swings from Cabell County schools. Luckily, after consulting with the West Virginia Department of Education's Office of School Facilities, officials discovered that swings are actually required at state elementary schools, and the plan was halted.

Oh, but wait. Inspectors in New Jersey identified a new playground menace: trees. To eliminate the threat of "suspended hazards," the director of a rural child-care facility in Moorestown, New Jersey, Sue Maloney, was ordered to remove all tree branches below 7.5 feet from the school property, despite the fact that in her 30 years on the job, these branches have not only provided valuable play opportunities, but have yet to injure a child.

In an editorial in the New York Times, entitled, “Can a playground be too safe?,” author John Tierney noted the need for children to learn physical risk-taking – as well as consequences – early in life.

The article noted that fear of litigation led New York City officials to remove seesaws, merry-go-rounds and the ropes that kids used to swing from one platform to another.

“What happens in America is defined by tort lawyers, and unfortunately that limits some of the adventure playgrounds,” said Adrian Benepe, the current parks commissioner.

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